Sainte Agathe (1975.350) [Saint Agatha (1975.350)], 2020, Metal filling cabinet, plaster, 146 x 49 x 70 cm

This work was made in response to a sculpture that has been damaged over the years. Its painted surface is chipped and incomplete in some areas. The position of her left hand suggests she may have originally held a martyr’s palm frond, which is often associated with Saint Agatha. The back of the piece has been left untouched, which leads us to believe it was meant to be viewed only from the front. It was likely originally presented inside a niche in a church. Here, Desjardins humbly attempts to provide a more favourable context for her presentation.

On September 3, 2020, at 7:29 a.m., Gerard Brisson, then Administrative Officer, sent Chloé Desjardins a description of object 1975.350.

The object I chose is a sculpture by an unknown artist who lived in Europe in the eighteenth century. Because it was designed to be displayed in a niche, only the front half was carved and painted. The work portrays Agatha of Catania, a young martyr put to death in the third century CE for rejecting the sexual advances of the Sicilian consul. It is a polychrome wooden sculpture with a heavily damaged paint layer and several structural alterations: visible knots, numerous cracks, and breaks in the wood.

In her right hand, the young woman holds a small tray on which are placed two identical balls, each crowned with a short stalk – they look like two large “Whippets,” but flesh-coloured. The balls occupy the entire surface of the tray, almost overflowing it. The young woman has an oval, rather chubby face and large blue almond-shaped eyes, topped by full eyebrows (not unlike Maripier Morin’s), a straight nose, a small mouth, and a little protruding chin. Her head sits on a bare and graceful neck, and her hair is styled. One imagines it gathered in a bun at the nape of her neck. Her hands, however, are far from feminine. They are massive and robust, with large, almost cylindrical fingers. Her left arm hangs down from her body and her hand makes the gesture of holding the palm of martyrdom between her thumb and forefinger, although the palm itself is missing. Her body is slightly stooped and her weight is on her right leg. The left leg is slightly bent and the foot, somewhat set back from the other, points to the left.

Being a member of the nobility, the young woman is dressed as required by her social rank. She wears a long burgundy tunic, overlaid with a second, shorter, spring-green tunic. To complete the costume, a blue palla, lined with red fabric, is cleverly draped around her body. A golden border adorns the edges of the palla and the hem of the short tunic. Only the tips of her black shoes appear under the long tunic.

Although the young woman has an impassive expression, her clothes are much more expressive and energize the piece. The palla that snakes sensually around the neck and the body, the folds in the clothes, the red spots appearing in the lining, and the positioning of the arms and the tray draw our attention to the virgin’s flat chest. And this is the crucial point of the work: Saint Agatha’s breasts have been torn off with pincers, and she ostentatiously displays them on the tray that she holds in her right hand. The palm of martyrdom and her breasts presented on a tray are her attributes, and they identify her to the people who come to implore her or pay her homage.

I chose this work because it reminds me of the time when I was a docent at the Museum. This sculpture provoked many reactions and questions from visitors who were intrigued by the contents of the tray and what this character represented.

Unknown artist, Saint Agatha, 18th century, Polychrome wood, 97,5 x 37 x 23 cm

Collection of Musée d’art de Joliette. Gift of Mr. Jean Palardy. 1975.350